What a difference a win makes, or so they say.
It was hard to know what to expect of the Wallabies going into the first game of another Rugby World Cup, what with the winless record and the gradual, but really only patchwork improvements to element of the game from one week to the next.
The form line of this Wallabies side in 2023 has been such that I certainly found it difficult to hold much more than hope, rather than confidence ahead of the opening match. Not writing them off, just not sure on recent evidence where a win would come from.
And that was before the latest round of selection bombshells were delivered last week. Surprisingly low in number compared to other games this season, the three changes to the starting side and three more on the bench were the fewest Eddie Jones had made in his six games back as Wallabies coach.
But weren’t there some doozies! No specialist locks on the bench, but instead, two backrowers of differing heights. And an outside back on the bench so specialist in ability that he can really cover the wing spots, and with a clear inclination to one side of the field over the other.
And then the biggest of them all: a flyhalf-cum-fullback, unwanted by his own state after a lacklustre Super Rugby season, thrust into the No.15 jersey for the first time at Test level, and dropping the previous occupant after a number of pretty good performances, albeit in beaten teams.
Obviously, it worked out pretty well. Ben Donaldson, to his absolute credit, was able to put all the commentary to the side and produced his best game in any jersey in probably 18 months. And though it took maybe a day or two for the full reasoning for his selection to come out, the game he played showed that the selection did make sense.
It’s just a shame that wasn’t explained very well at the time. Not initially, anyway.
Certainly, the game plan for Georgia dictated that another kicking option was needed, and it was very clear that Donaldson’s boot was required to peg the Lelos back deep in their own half, something Australia did very well.
The heat was quite probably a driving factor in this as well, which is why complaints of the Wallabies not playing more ball in hand are frankly misguided. When the Wallaby Gold jerseys were resembling something closer to burnt orange once drenched in sweat, this was never going to be a game for running the ball more than they did.
Australia still had more possession than Georgia did anyway. And remember way back when the Wallabies were making 200, 250-plus tackles a game through The Rugby Championship? They attempted just 84 in this game – half as many as the Georgians did.
Still, a win is a win, and for the Wallabies it really didn’t matter how the first win of the year came, only that it did.
Yes, it was “only Georgia”, if you must include the borderline disrespectful qualifier, and though it was a lot closer to an 80 minute performance, it certainly wasn’t perfect.
But one thing is for sure: it’s a hell of a lot easier and a lot more enjoyable to work on things with a win behind you and growing confidence. And all the regular touchpoints of 2023 need the same attention: lineout and maul, midfield connection, and especially the outside defensive alignment and positioning.
Then there’s the part of this week coming that Eddie Jones might enjoy the most.
The win and the way the Wallabies played means that several guys – Donaldson the most obvious one – have delivered in ways that will make them hard to leave out against Fiji this weekend. It would have been curious to see who Jones had pencilled in to face the Flying Fijians on the second weekend, and it would only be ‘curiouser’ to know how many differences there are between that side and the one he names later this week.
Certainly, Donaldson’s business case is as strong as it gets. A strong kicking game, both out of hand and off the tee, good support lines from the back, and two good tries is going to be hard to argue. He still has many of the same defensive issues that plague his game when playing flyhalf, and his positioning as a Test fullback was about as much as you could hope for in his first appearance in the No.15. But he has repaid the coach’s faith in spades, and Eddie Jones will certainly be loyal at the selection table when it suits him.
So the flow-on selection issue won’t be in the back three, but probably the backups. And I will maintain that picking someone like Andrew Kellaway who can cover three or four positions makes a whole lot more sense than a winger who probably only covers one.
Fiji’s scrum was strong against Wales and will be again this weekend coming. So you would think James Slipper has to come into consideration. But with only skerricks of information on his fitness, it’s hard to know whether he will or not.
On the set piece, Nick Frost surely needs to come back into the lock rotation, purely so that the Wallabies can look to attack the Fijian lineout all game. It is an opportunity for Australia, so it would seem a waste to not have a specialist on the bench.
And on the topic of fitness, how healthy is Samu Kerevi, really?
It was reported last week by The Roar that he’d likely only play 40 minutes or so, and that proved to be the case. But where does he sit after that 40 minutes? He averaged five metres per carry, and didn’t make or miss a tackle. Beat one defender, got one offload away. But did he have a lot of impact? I’m not so sure.
And I do wonder if a less-than-100% midfielder is what you want Semi Radradra lining up against?
They’re all questions worthy of consideration, but Jones does now have more options for his 23 than he did only a game or two ago. And that’s a significantly better situation than when he first picked up the Wallabies clipboard.
Selection headaches are always great, but they would be even more satisfying when you’ve brought them on yourself.